The battle for the Senate is happening on Facebook. Recently, candidates have started to take to the airwaves more than a year out from an election, but most early spending is still confined to digital mediums (digital numbers in this piece are defined as Facebook and Google disclosures). Early investments in digital advertising allow for strong fundraising when voters tune in to elections in Q2 and Q3 of next year. Digital advertisements often focus on list building and laying the groundwork to turn on the Act Blue spigot.
If the assumptions of this model are correct, Republicans in the Senate should be very concerned. Traditionally, incumbents (GOP incumbents account for 20 of the 35 Senate seats up in 2020) have a fundraising and spending advantage, but this does not currently appear to be the case. Throughout 2019, Democrats in the Senate have outspent their GOP rivals on digital by $7.3 million: $9.6 million to $2.3 million. This could become problematic for Republicans as they attempt to retain their three-seat advantage in the Senate.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has spent $335,000 on digital so far, approximately two times more than any other GOP Senate candidate, and he still faces the largest digital deficit of any Senator in 2020, at $1.2M. The presumptive Democratic nominee, Amy McGrath, and her allies spending more than $1.5 million on digital already, $500,000 more than any other Democratic Senate candidate. Democrats hold digital spending advantages averaging more than $750,000 in Arizona, Maine, and Colorado, three of the most competitive Senate races this cycle. All seats are held by GOP incumbents and The Cook Political Report rates them as Toss Ups.
Mark Kelly, the presumptive Democratic nominee in Arizona, finished Q3 with more cash on hand than former Vice President Joe Biden had in his presidential account. Kelly has heavily invested his fundraising haul back into digital. Sara Gideon, who is seeking the Democratic nod to challenge GOP Sen. Susan Collins in Maine, has spent more than any candidate other than McGrath on digital. Both Collins and Gideon have gone up on television, where they are roughly matched in weight, but Collins has invested less than $30,000 on digital, $900,000 less than her likely opponent. Even in longer shot Democratic pickup opportunities such as South Carolina and Iowa, there are signs of Democratic momentum with digital spending advantages of 400 percent and 300 percent in those races, respectively.
The news on the digital front is not all bad for the GOP, however. The party has a $65,000 spending advantage in Alabama, it’s largest advantage and in a state that is its best pickup opportunity. This should set off alarms for Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, as he needs every advantage possible to retain his seat in solid red Alabama in a presidential election year. Another potential GOP pick up is Michigan, where Republican John James is nearly equaling Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters in digital spending. After holding Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow to a smaller than expected margin of victory in 2018, it seems that James is running another strong campaign and has a chance to upset the incumbent in a state that narrowly voted for President Trump in 2016.
Early digital investment is vital for campaigns to connect with potential donors and raise money that can then be invested in television ads and GOTV efforts closer to election day. Overall, Democrats in the Senate appear to be doing a much better job with this early investment. However, there are some bright spots for Republicans as they look to hold the Senate, with potential flips in Alabama and Michigan. This is the first cycle in which we have early access to digital numbers, and we will continue to examine digital spending and how it relates to fundraising and traditional media expenditures.